Inception and the Concepts of Dreaming

Warning: Might contain spoilers (I really never know if my posts do or not).

Eliza and I went to see Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Inception, last night.  This movie is quickly becoming a summer blockbuster hit, with a high grossing opening weekend and primarily rave reviews from the critics.  For my part I thought it was very well done.

What I think Inception really has going for it is a lot of originality, something that Hollywood often seems to be eager to overlook these days.  I can’t really think of a single movie that is like it (though I can dissect parts and compare them).  At its core this film is really a heist movie, but is buffered by a lot of philosophical concept (specifically on the nature of dreaming and reality).  It is gorgeously filmed and even though it runs for about 2.5 hours, it doe not ever feel like a really dragging long movie.  My only real criticism is that in all the effort to make this beautiful concept heavy movie, I feel like the writers got a little lazy in regards to the characters*.  It isn’t that any of them a poorly acted, it is more that I found it hard to understand why any of them were doing this.  Only Leonardo DiCaprio’s main character, Cobb, seems to have much in regards to real development, everybody else seems to just be along for the ride.  But all told I think that this was a great movie and I hope that it emphasizes to Hollywood that there is such a thing as successful original concept movies (instead of constant sequels and remakes).  Worth the see.

Really I didn’t want to write just a movie review here, because what does that do for anybody (I figure if you are looking for a good review you’ll stop at Rotten Tomatoes or something, instead of reading some random dude’s blog)?  No, instead I wanted to take some time to think about the film’s portrayal of the mind and dreaming (which is a very central theme throughout Inception).

The concept of mind and dreaming is nothing new to film or art.  One need only look as far as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the surreal paintings of Salvador Dali to see how our dreaming life has impacted art.  On the film end you can think of movies like Waking Life or even The Matrix, and you are getting pretty well into the way that filmmakers have interpreted our thinking minds.  As for Inception, the dreaming life takes on a reality that is both tangible and navigable (with the proper skills) if not without a slight instability and potential hazards (though, honestly, I have to rank the hazards relatively low, considering that death, generally,means waking up).

Inception’s concept and portrayal of dreaming is both necessary and complimentary to the plot of the film (basically I can’t see the movie working without the dreaming reality being presented this way), but I also think it is misguided.  While I can suspend my disbelief for the movie (and gladly did, and will again), upon reflection outside of the dark theater I have to conclude that our real dreams are not really all that like what they were in the movie.

Yes, dreams do tend to seem real while we are dreaming them.  But how real?  I cannot speak for others, but I have never really had the moment of epiphany in a dream where I ask myself, “How real is this?”  I do think I have had dreams where I know that I am dreaming, but this knowledge becomes dependent on the reality of the dream regardless, and thus that consideration of how real is the dream, never comes to light.  Inception relies heavily on the idea of utilizing innate subconsciousness to build a lot of the feel of the dreams (basically that our subconscious supplies the details).  I can buy this as how dreams probably work.  In dreaming we seem to interact with a world and believe, in the dream, that there is a reality to things.  If we dream of eating an orange our minds construct that orange from the information it has available (color, size, flavor, smell, etc.), however, where I think Inception really stretches the concept, is in the vast detail.  While we are dreaming we may believe that things are vivid and real, but upon waking and reflection, I would say that more often than not we come to the conclusion that the complexity was relatively simple.  The details are limited only to direct interaction.

I suspect that this is partially because the human mind, even in all it’s complexity, cannot completely recreate the whole world.  There is just too much, and for the mind to populate all of that, while still maintaining the sense of self that is navigating the dream, is overwhelming  As such, no matter how real a dream may feel, upon waking it always diminishes to a shadowy status, a kind of idea, like you had just thought up and interesting story.

There have been people who have wondered if we can really distinguish between dreaming and the waking reality.  Is it possible that we might just be in another dream?  I suppose the contemplation can be fun and a little exhilarating, but really, when I reflect upon it, I cannot find any ground for this life being nothing more than a dream.  It is the problem of details again.  Where would they come from?  If indeed I am living in a very well established dream, then how does my mind populate so much vast detail.  The Matrix wondered this itself with the wonderful question, by Mouse, of how the machines could know what chicken tastes like.  I suppose one could argue the point of ideal forms, but what does that really mean (note: I know what ideal forms are, in concept, but basically I think that they do not actually play as much of a role in a dreaming reality as one my be inclined to think)?  My general conclusion is that when we think we are awake we are awake and that dreaming is something that occurs when we sleep.

Still, the idea of being able to manipulate a dreaming reality is interesting to say the least.  Some people claim the ability of being able to control their dreams while they are dreaming.  I myself have never experienced this (even in the dreams where I am relatively aware that it is a dream I do not seem to have any control over the course of it).  My question, in regards to controling one’s own dreams, is how this really works.  What is the mind doing to change the environment and the course of the dreaming?  I guess where I become slightly skeptical is that it seems that so much of dreaming (much lie in Inception) is subconscious and that brining it into the conscious reality of decision making would ultimately be difficult to maintain.

Dreams have perplexed humanity for a long time.  The ancients thought that they were a means of prophesy or foresight.  Freud and other early psychologist thought that dreams reflected important personality traits of individuals.  Current neurosciences suggest that dreams might just be the effects of random synaptic firing while in a sleeping state.  I cannot say whether dreams contain any significant meaning or if they are ust our minds playing around with available knowledge and experience.  What I can say, however, is that dreams demonstrate, to a degree, the ways in which our minds are able to create perceptions, and further, that at times, our minds are able to trick themselves into believing something that is not real.  The question (which I still think is kind of unnecessary or irrelivent) is just how well our minds might be able to trick ourselves.  We deal with something that we define as “reality,” but to what extent that reality reflects true things versus manifestations of the mind can be hard to tell.

*Note on Characters:  Eliza suggested an alternative to my thought that the writers got lazy on the characters.  She suggests that the seeming lack of depth to any of the characters besides Cobb might be entirely intentional in creating this ambiguity that the entire movie might be some kind of dream itself.  She thinks that the overall careful and detailed writing on the plot suggests that the writers may have purposely created vague characters because dreaming state people cannot be too overly developed.  Cobb definitely suggests this himself in explaining that he cannot maintain a correctly detailed dream version on Mal.  Whether Eliza’s idea is true or not, I kind of like it, it plays into the whole complexity of the film, and it would suggest a cleverness that I can really appreciate.

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~ by Nathaniel on July 20, 2010.

4 Responses to “Inception and the Concepts of Dreaming”

  1. Hi there. I really enjoyed this post as I’m doing some research on dreaming. I agree with Eliza’s interpretation on the characters lack of depth. When I walked out of the movie I definitely felt as if I just watched a dream play out on screen. I felt as if I wanted to meet the real person having the dream. But who’s to say that I didn’t…I just know in dreams of my own sometimes I am not myself. Anywho…I found the movie quite clever and it has definitely peaked an interest in my mind. Kudos on the post!

  2. This movie made me think alot about what is reality and what is a dream. im sorry but my english is not so good so bare with me. i did some experiments in which i tried to distinguish dream,memories and reality. after a week i came to one conclusion. that my grasp on reality was only as strong as my ability to recall a memory. What i found out worried me, i first tried to remember something i seen and am quite familiar with, a coke can and when i tried to remember how it look like and what i pictured was always far from what it actually looked like. then i tried to draw my necklace that i wore for 2 years but i got it totally wrong. it may not seem surprising to you but i been a art student for 6 years and i can draw anything like a photo and the necklace was the letter l. then i tried to recall peoples faces and i couldn’t picture them but always how their faces felt like and not really what they looked like. then i realized all my memories could be fake. i had this lie i used to tell that i went on a fishing trip and caught a shark. it was lie it never happened but i told it so many times it was as real as any of my other memories. i kinda freak myself out then i wonder what if i was a dream. i mean notting is really real untill you learned it. the idea became less far fetched as i thought about it,i realized i didnt need to imagine everyone on earth with all their complexity,but just whats in front of me. i mean everything i see is just a perception of what is going on in font of me in the present. then i ask myself “if this is really all just my imagination then why cant i control anything?” but i have. when i have a fever i often project things that weren’t really their. and they weren’t distinguishable from anything else. i seen my dead father and he was as real as anyone else in the room. maybe i haven’t convinced myself i was 100% in a dream and thats why i cant control the world. i went on to do some experiments on perception with some of my friend. i give them a piece of blank printing paper and told them to pay attention to the different hues of the imperfection on the paper. i then asked them what they saw, one said number and lines the other said skulls. i then asked them to trace what they saw to make sure they are not drawing from their imagination but what they saw on the paper. they drew things that were well above their artist abilities. i have done this many times now that i can morph the imperfection and hues into pictures and trace the picture. from practicing this exercise i learn how powerful my mind is and how well i can control it with just a lil practice. now i had to assure i wasnt in a dream, and i couldnt for a good day until my girlfriend came over, and i realized i could remember everything about her. all her imperfection and perfection and her complex uncontrollable personalty. i drew my gf that day and looked as if a photo i knew i wasnt in a dream because i knew that it was beyond my ability to recall a image from memory and it was only her, and she was my [totem] if you will to reality. i was really impacted by the concept that my reality could be a dream and the truth is you cant be sure.

  3. Reblogged this on paish21 and commented:
    I loved inception..maybe it was the neuroscientist in me..so I think this is worth reading

  4. I know I am commenting more than a year later but I loved your post. I am a neuroscience student and I am totally fascinated by the mind and the numerous tricks it can perform. I also love how our subconscious plays such a vital role and yet we are unaware of it. I guess it is all about perception but then again it is known that our minds only perceive a very small percentage of what is really around us, our visual field is not that great. So if you do not see everything then you really cant perceive everything and so I guess our reality is more complex than we think. But some say we do see everything but just do not perceive it, but when we enter a dream state our subconscious takes control and all that we did not perceive may now come into play that’s why sometimes you have a dream that is like something that already happened earlier in the day but with added detail that you obviously did not see and had not experienced before (so it could not be from other memories). I do not know how far true this is, like I said I am still a student. But anyway kudos for the great post and I think Inception was definitely one of the best movies of our time and I jus love Leonardo 🙂

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